Can Cancer Be A 'Gift?'

May 1, 2017

Messages of hope painted by patients fill one wall of the Community Cancer Center in Normal.
Credit Judith Valente / GLT News

You don't normally expect to hear the words cancer and gift in the same sentence. But that is how Marcia O'Donnell, a Community Cancer Center patient, describes her life since her diagnosis of advanced breast cancer.

O'Donnell is a former mental health professional and mother of two small children.

She credits her positive outlook, in part, to being able to share her questions, fears and sometimes overwhelming emotions with Cancer Center chaplain Cheryl-Peterson Karlan.

Initially, though O'Donnell didn't even want to meet with the chaplain. 

"I thought, hey there is this nice lady, but back off, I'm really not ready to talk about this," O'Donnell recalled on GLT's Sound Ideas.

But Peterson-Karlan kept coming by on O'Donnell's visits to the Cancer Center.

"She is in tune with the patients here and has an expertise in feeling out people's personalities. Her calling is to be a lamp, to shine a light and give them hope. I think she could sense I really wanted that but wasn't ready to open up," O'Donnell said.

Peterson-Karlan shared events and memories from her own life with O'Donnell, and "once that occurred I felt more ready to open up about myself," O'Donnell said.

Although Peterson-Karlan is an ordained minister, O'Donnell said she appreciated the fact that Peterson-Karlan was "not going around trying to save everyone."

Stilll, as a result of their talks, O'Donnell said she became more active in her church, and began to "rely more on my religious beliefs and experiences." 

"Cheryl and I were able to come together and make an experience that is really very scary and fearful into one that is more peaceful and tolerable and comforting ultimately," she said.

"She doesn't pretend to understand what you are going through,but offers you an outlet to speak about anything. She can really tolerate the tears, be present for the pain and be available through it all without judgment and without being reactive,:" O'Donnell added.

O'Donnell likened cancer to suffering "a layer of losses." She said she experienced being stripped of her previous identity.

"Losing my health, losing my stamina, becoming isolated in that regard. And yet here I am.  I'm a human being, I'm alive, but what is my identity? How do I find meaning in my life now without being person I was before?"

That question led O'Donnell to what she calls the "ultimate gift."

"The truth is all of us are loveable and worthy as we are, without the build up and the markers, with the identifiers we all fall back on everyday to make ourselves feel worthwhile."

She said her cancer diagnosis set her free to "feel love for myself without those identifiers and that allows me to feel love for everyone else."